In my previous blog post, I criticized the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS) for displaying a lack of environmental, social and cultural awareness. I received many positive reactions, but not from MANS of course. Its executive director Sean Kirby responded with an all too familiar sounding broken-record statement. That weak response, displaying a lack of deeper insight, is exactly why I have a problem with MANS. But of course I shouldn’t expect anything else from what is just an industry lobbying group that wants to make a quick buck.
Climate change is an accepted existential threat to humanity. So governments are working to decarbonize energy production and consumption, a hugely complex task. While every effort that mitigates warming has a positive global effect, there are many inconsistencies. For example, worldwide demand for coal is still growing because of China and India’s demand, but does that mean we should mine more coal in Nova Scotia? Clearly – and fortunately – that’s not the plan of successive NS governments of all political colours who have worked and are working to reduce the amount of coal for electricity generation in our Province.
So what’s an important mineral in one part of the world, is off the table in another part. This doesn’t mean decarbonization is not an exact science. Hence Natural Resources Canada – together with similar expert organizations from other countries – has identified a list of critical minerals. This is great, because now we can at least separate greed (minerals we mine only for profit) from need (minerals we mine because they are critically important for building a carbon-free economy). What contribution can and should Nova Scotia make to the green transition while increasing biodiversity conservation and fully respecting Indigenous rights?
In his reply to my criticism, MANS executive director Sean Kirby listed off a list of minerals that he thinks Nova Scotia can and should supply towards the green transition: Tin, Silicate, Titanium, Gold, Metallurgical Coal, Copper, Zinc and Indium. First off, Silicate, Metallurgical Coal and Gold (!) are not on Canada’s list of critical minerals. That leaves only 5 others: Tin, Titanium, Copper, Zinc and Indium.
The Canadian Minerals and Metals plan states: “Federal, provincial and territorial governments will collaborate to better understand “criticality” in a Canadian context. They will also identify steps to strengthen domestic critical mineral supply chains, collaborate on key initiatives, and attract investment. I haven’t been able to find any sort of statement by the Nova Scotia government that lays out how our Province will contribute to this plan. The Dept of Energy and Mines (which includes the Nova Scotia Geological Survey) does excellent geoscience work and provides – equally excellent – information, but no qualified opinion. So all we have is really good government information (but no vision regarding the Canadian Minerals and Metals plan) and a lobby group (MANS) that spews self serving opinion only. This is meagre.
Mineral Resource extraction remains exclusively in the hands of private industry, which functions on the basis of profit only. Let’s face it: “growth isn’t about increasing production in order to meet human needs. It’s about increasing production in order to extract and accumulate profit” (Jason Hickel). That this rapacious principle is practiced fully by the mining industry here, can be illustrated with three examples: the Sussex (NB) Potash mine, the East Kemptville (NS) Tin-Indium mine and the Gays River (NS) Zinc mine.
Three examples: Potash, Tin and Zinc.
Potash (Potassium chloride) is an undisputed critically important mineral as Potassium is one of three essential fertilizer ingredients (the others are Nitrogen and Phosphorus). Canada has world class potash reserves, almost all of which are in Saskatchewan. But Sussex (NB) had a potash mine for many decades and I was lucky enough to visit it once: an impressive operation. In 2016, the mine was bought and promptly closed. Why? The new owners stated that the production of this critical mineral was (all of a sudden?) “too expensive”. Needless to say, that abrupt closure of this proud operation caused massive job loss, an economic punch to the gut in the area. It won’t reopen again either. This mine was closed because of a lack of profit, not because we don’t need potash. If only we had some sort of government regulation protecting our own production of critical minerals!
Tin: The International Tin Association states that there is no supply risk of Tin for at least 50 years, but the US Geological Survey is not so positive. The world’s biggest Tin reserves are in Russia, with Canada coming at 9th place. In Canada, Tin is currently only mined (as a by-product) at the Lead-Zinc-Silver-Iron Sullivan mine in BC. But then there is the abandoned South Kemptville Tin mine, within the SW Nova Biosphere reserve. Avalon Advanced Materials would like to produce Tin and Indium from its tailings, but the original owner (BHP) won’t let them. This is awful, we should absolutely be producing this critical mineral from this pile of mine waste. This mine is only idle because of a lack of corporate will. If only we had some sort of government regulation protecting our own production of critical minerals!
Zinc. Canada holds 1% of global zinc reserves. 10% of global zinc production comes from recycling. In 2019, Canada produced 299,000 tons of zinc from mines in MB, ON, QC, BC and NB. The New Brunswick mine is the Lead-Copper-Zinc mine in the Bathurst mining camp. This mine also produces the Lead that Surrette Batteries in Springhill NS uses to manufacture its world class batteries. In Nova Scotia, we have the open cast Scotia Zinc mine in Gays River. I visited that mine on a field trip in 2008 and it was idled a year later. Reason given: a decline in metal prices and increase in production costs. It might resume production in the coming year. But really, it should have never closed to begin with. It’s been sitting idle for 13 years not because we don’t need zinc, but only because the competition bought it so it could increase its own profits. If only we had some sort of government regulation protecting our own production of critical minerals!
The other critical minerals on Sean Kirby list
Titanium. Canada has 31,000 metric tons of ilmenite, the mineral that contains the element titanium. It’s all produced from one mine, the Titan mine in Ontario. In Nova Scotia, Titanium occurs in the sand bars of the Shubenacadie River. Any Nova Scotian who has crossed the Shubenacadie bridge at low tide, has seen the black sand bars in the river bed (weirdly, I don’t have a picture of that site myself). I remember talking with a prospector who hoped to produce the Titanium from those sands; that was about 15 years ago. It’s estimated to be a very large resource – just needs dredging. Readily sorted for you by natural processes. I think that such an operation would likely undermine a healthy and growing tourist industry in that area, and I haven’t done the math, but I’m guessing the tourism is better and more sustainable for the NS economy in the long run. I also think that massive dredging there would be adversarial to the ecology, but I don’t know enough about that. Up for debate.
Copper. There’s no question about the critical importance of copper. Natural Resources Canada tells us that more than half of Canada’s copper reserves are in BC, another 1/3d in Ontario and the rest in various other provinces, but not in NS. I can’t find literature on copper reserves in Nova Scotia, so I don’t know why Sean Kirby lists it. Yes, we’re looking at another massive wind turbine park in the making and wind turbines need a.o. lots of copper, but there simply isn’t a mineable reserve in our own Province.
We have only one planet and in order for humanity to survive, we need earth materials, a rich biodiversity and clean water for everyone. I urge the new Nova Scotia government to start a public discussion with the goal to arrive at a mineral extraction policy that is based in the acceptance of critical minerals and aims to contribute to the Canada Minerals and Metals Plan quoted above. Let’s do this soon, because the gold companies are aggressively moving forward to reap profits and destroy our environment for a resource that we don’t need, like magpies going after their bling.